Why ‘Make Do and Mend’ should be a slogan for our times

> I know, I know, the wartime parallels have already worn thin. But unlike keeping calm and carrying on, ‘make do and mend’ is one retro adage that deserves a modern revival.

The famous phrase – which first appeared as the title of a pamphlet published by the Ministry of Information to help 1940s housewives get the most from their family’s clothing rations – has never felt more relevant. Belts are tighter, financially, than they have been for decades. Lockdown inspired a quiet handicraft revolution that saw some of us threading a needle for the first time in years. And the perspective-jolt of the past few months has made many of us determined to reduce waste, shop less and make better use of what we have.  

Of course, we were in crisis long before Covid-19 struck. Thanks to massive overproduction, the gross devaluing of human labour and a throwaway attitude our grandparents wouldn’t have recognised, the planet is groaning under the weight of excess clothing. According to WRAP, around 350,000 tonnes of clothing is sent to landfill each year in the UK alone, while roughly the same volume is exported, mostly to sub-Saharan Africa, where it stifles local textile economies and creates waste for another continent to swallow. You probably knew that.

Clothing on truck

But did you know that extending the useful life of a garment by just nine months could reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 30%? While the focus of sustainable fashion often falls on shopping, the truth is that keeping our own clothes in active service for longer is one of the most powerful, even radical, differences we can make.

This could mean a full upcycling project, or it could be as small and as simple as mending a hole or replacing a button. How many things in your wardrobe right now would be perfectly wearable if it wasn’t for a scratchy seam, an awkward hem length or an unfortunate stain? How many times have we all written off a once-loved piece rather than try to salvage it, because it was easier just to buy something new? And crucially, how much more emotionally connected to a garment will you feel when you’ve invested your time and energy into its upkeep? Hopefully not your blood, sweat or tears, though they all help too.  

In the original Make Do and Mend pamphlet, 1940s readers were advised to create pretty ‘decorative patches’ to cover holes in worn garments, unpick old jumpers to re-knit with the wool, turn old clothes into whole new garments, make alterations to fit and style, and protect against the ‘moth menace’ – all still solid advice for a 2020 wardrobe. One of my favourite pairs of jeans is covered in beautiful iron-on patches, a crafty trend which really came into its own after I spilled curry down them.

I’d also add fixing a stiff or stuck zip (try rubbing a pencil along its teeth), rescuing a shrunken jumper (soak it in warm water and hair conditioner), and mending a bra with a poking-out underwire (cover the sharp end with tape, push it firmly back into the hole and sew up the top, or take both wires out and turn it into a comfy bralette). If you’re feeling confident, turning a dress into a top and/or skirt can be easier than it sounds, as is taking a hem up or tweaking a neckline to keep it feeling current.

Remember, none of this has to look perfect. Be inspired by the Japanese art of sashiko and the #visiblemending movement, to make your repairs a point of pride rather than a source of shame. Let a garment’s history become part of its beauty. And as someone with a wardrobe full of clothes that have been scrappily altered by hand, probably with the wrong colour thread, sometimes after a couple of beers, allow me to reassure you: nobody notices. The only thing that matters is getting the clothes worn.

Visible mended jeans

Of course, the time and ability to mend your own clothes are a luxury not everybody has – especially when the cheapest clothes on the high street are often the most likely to fall apart. If it feels like a job for the experts, The Seam app is a great resource that hooks you up with local sewists, while most dry cleaners also offer fairly-priced alterations. Or if all else fails, we can downcycle old clothes into gift wrap, hair scarves, cushion covers or cleaning cloths. Anything that keeps them out of landfill.

Finally, let’s not forget the other half of the phrase: make do. In a society that has taught us to crave the shiny and new, to shop both as comfort and reward, to honour each life event and photo opp with a bag-fresh outfit, it might just be the biggest hurdle of all. Let’s normalise making do with what we have, and committing to our clothes for the long haul. Because chances are, unlike those wartime housewives, our wardrobes are already pretty full.
Lauren Bravo is the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A Guilt Free Guide to Changing the Way You Shop, for Good. 

Author Image Alt

Lauren Bravo

Writer’s Bio:Lauren Bravo is a journalist based in London who writes about everything from food, travel, women’s issues, and most recently and avidly - the problems with fast fashion.

Sustainable Reads

We have curated the best selection of reads, from climate change to social justice to vegan cookbooks

Learn More